Is Religion Ruining Our Health?

09/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Tara Stiles Named Yoga Rebel by the New York Times, founder of Strala Yoga.

The moment we believe the answers are no longer inside ourselves, waiting without trickery to be uncovered by reflection, meditation, and practice, we are separated from the truth. We become ungrounded by fear and start to look outside and grasp for answers away from our reach.

Self-doubt is a part of most everyone's life at some point. When we forget that we are powerful, loving beings, full of potential and endless possibilities, we are subject to fall into the traps of teachings that convince us that we are unworthy, unholy, and small. Finding the answers in something outside of our selves can feel more secure, especially when lots of other people are doing it. Most of us are taught faith when we are young. We are given a set of rules and behaviors to live by "or else" bad things will happen and there will be no eternal salvation. Religion takes the trust away from the individual and replaces it with an insurance plan for eternal salvation paid off over a lifetime with rules and fear. Is going to a building once a week to be guided to a connection with God useful or destructive? Why can't we plug into divinity each moment without the help of an institution? Feeling and intuition can guide us through a very grounded and real spiritual path.

Religion has the potential to bring people together, provide comfort, and turn people's attention to good things. Religions also have the power to crush the human will, making a person dependent on rules and behavior for approval, acceptance, and salvation. A good friend of mine was sharing with me how upset she was over her boyfriend of several years breaking their relationship off. His religious and cultural values led him to put down all the extroverted professional on-goings my friend was experiencing, and made her feel bad about gaining success and attention for her performing career. When it came down to the root of their issue, his religion and values taught him to believe that performing on stage, and any act of expressing one's talent and passion outwardly is turning away from God.

This sounds more like fear than spirituality. It makes sense that full expression of our gifts in a celebration of joy and love leans more to the union of the Self with God. When we acknowledge and celebrate that divinity is in everyone, our fears have the capacity to fade. Realizing this ultimate truth, whether practiced in singing, yoga, gardening, running, or walking, is a strong foundation for spirituality.

While my friend's case is extreme, religions have contributed to a decline in our mental and physical health. Think back to a joyful childhood moment where you were running around, having a blast, full of uncensored, joyful expression. You weren't worried about rules yet, although we are trained from birth how to act to get love and attention. Playful kids are full of joy, vitality and health. The body and the mind are the same. Kids don't worry about how many grams of protein are in their dinner, or how many calories they are burning running around having fun. They are living in the moment and somehow they find their way naturally to consuming and burning what their bodies need, resting when they are tired, and waking up fresh when they've had enough sleep.

We can also find and trust our own intuitions, and live in the moment as adults. We probably have more responsibilities than when we were 5, and we have to make our own meals. But we can figure it out.

People follow rules for 2 reasons: 1. It makes sense to follow that rule. Traffic signals are a good example. 2. Fear. We're taught our whole life what we need to do and what we're not allowed to do. Some rules are useful and some are silly. It's not useful if someone tells you which rules to follow and which to break. Our own work is in following a practice that helps us center, ground, and connect to some harmony with nature, the divine, and of course ourselves. At that point, we already know what we need to follow and what to let go.

After reading through Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food several times, what crept up and shocked me wasn't as much the outcome - an ongoing horrific state of health in America. It's that on the whole, we've completely lost touch with our awareness. We put all our faith in scientific studies that continue to contradict each other, and marketing that keeps us constantly switching directions. We have been trained to trust the "experts" without thought or question, and welcomed the glazed-over convenience of it all. We waited for someone to tell us what to eat, and we believed them when they told us we could eat a whole box of SnackWells cookies because they are "fat free."

Religion doesn't have to get in the way of trusting our own feelings, but it has that capacity if we let it. Similarly, we don't need to let scientific studies get in the way of our own common sense. Looking at the history of science (or religion for that matter), it's kind of amusing how seriously we sometimes take all the latest proclamations of "Now we have the truth so come and get it!" We already have our own sense, our own intuition, our own truths. We have a great need all around us now to work on our health. The exciting part is we can choose to put in the work to ground our selves, take a closer look at our behaviors and psychology, find our own answers, and use our knowledge and compassion to help others. We're already living in the Matrix, or Stepford (pick your favorite flick), and it's time to unplug. Excitingly enough, it's never too late to change, to inspire, to love, and to eat something green.